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Could an ‘iPad Skeleton’ Transform Tablets into Notebooks?

How about a stand or sleeve to prop your iPad on coupled with an app to accommodate a keyboard and processor with an operating system to magically turn your iPad into a notebook computer? This scenario, or some facsimile, is sure to come…

You realize, of course, I made the previous statement with only the foggiest idea of what the hell the difference, if any, there is between a tablet computer, a notebook (or laptop) computer, a slate, an iPod or iPhone, etc, etc, etc!

This from Mark Hachman of PC Magazine…and thank the computer god for experts:

Lenovo’s U1 Hybrid could signal the future of the Apple iPad and tablet industry, if any accessory manufacturers want to jump on board.

Lenovo’s U1 is something truly novel: a Linux-based tablet that can be docked back into a notebook form factor, adding a keyboard, a second processor, a Windows operating system, and additional battery life to the mix. But what if all a user wanted was a keyboard?

Let me explain. I haven’t been lucky enough to play with the iPad yet, so I can’t comment on the usability of its keyboard. But the disadvantage of any touchscreen device, in my mind, has been the lack of a quality keyboard, that can be used as effectively as a physical keyboard over long periods of time. And this, I believe, is a concern: by adding iWork to the iPad software ecosystem, Apple has signaled that it hopes customers will perform some light content creation. Patrick Moorhead of AMD, who used the iPad for a week as a business tool, noted that his wrists became cramped after a few hours of work.

From a physical standpoint, here’s what differentiates a notebook from a tablet: A hinge. And a keyboard.

While MacBooks can be found all over college campuses, I can’t imagine too many students will be taking notes (typed notes, mind you) on an iPad or other tablet unless there’s a hard surface to support the tablet. Even though Apple banished laptop users to a specially designated ghetto at the recent iPhone OS 4 launch, the majority of attendees at that and at any industry event tend to favor notebooks or netbooks. We’re used to the experience.

In February, LaCie announced several tablet sleeves that (coincidentally, as it turns out – LaCie did not receive any information about the iPad’s specs before the launch) fit the iPad and other tablets. Since then, a number of other sleeve manufacturers (including, most recently, Speck) have launched protective sleeves and cases.

But the one innovation I haven’t seen is a sort of skeleton notebook, with an open sleeve at the top to allow users to insert and remove the iPad, with a hinged plastic or metal backing that would support it. If I was designing the concept (a tab-book? an iPad skeleton? a “Markbook”?) I’d either build in a Bluetooth wireless keyboard into the plastic base, or somehow leave a space for users to attach their own. Basically, think of an empty notebook shell, with a keyboard, but with an iPad replacing the display. (Bluetooth allows a physical separation between the keyboard and iPad.)

I imagine the skeleton might look vaguely like the Sweetbox notebook case above, just a bit more rugged, integrated, and with a more elegant design.

Before the iPad’s launch, I wasn’t sure if Apple would allow a Bluetooth keyboard to connect to the iPad. Fortunately, it is increasingly becoming clear that users have a great deal of freedom in selecting one; according to reports, Bluetooth keyboards that work with Apple’s tablet include the iGo Stowaway, the Think Outside keyboard, and, best of all, Apple’s own Bluetooth keyboard.

The advantages are significant; Apple’s Wi-Fi-only iPad starts at $499. The MacBook starts at $999. That $500 gap is roomy enough for a sleeve or other accessory manufacturer to sell an iPad skeleton for $80 to $140 and still lure customers. And since we’re talking about a keyboard married to a case combined with a sleeve, I can imagine both keyboard and peripheral manufacturers (Belkin, LaCie, or Logitech, for example) as well as sleeve manufacturers potentially entering the market.

Note that the concept isn’t necessarily confined to iPads. A number of other suppliers (including Dell, with its Mini 5 tablet, the HP Slate, and an undisclosed tablet from Toshiba, among others) could certainly take advantage of the skeleton concept.

Of course, the concept could be taken even farther, with full-fledged docking stations built into the skeleton base. At that point, the line between laptop, netbook, and tablet would blur even further.

A skeleton certainly represents a threat to the Apple MacBook; a skeleton takes a product primarily designed for consumption and turns it into more of a productivity tool. But it seems like a win-win for all concerned.

I’ve held informal conversations with a few manufacturers, and they’ve seemed intrigued by the idea. That either means we should be seeing iPad skeletons shortly, or else they’re running into some unexpected snags. Either way, I’m personally interested in the concept, and would like to see what the industry could do with it.

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